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The Ozone Hole Crisis - Lessons to be Learnt From the Montreal Protocol

Oct 30, 2021 7:51 AM 5 min read

When people refer to the good old days, they are usually heard talking about the times when nobody used phones, video games were for the rich or the ozone layer was whole. 

Well, guess what, if that's the metric for the good old days then it seems like we're still semi-living in them because the ozone is on a path to recovery, if not fully restored. 

The 2021 Future Life Award, instituted by the Future Life Institute (a non-profit), went to three people - Susan Solomon (atmospheric chemist), Joseph Farman (geophysicist) and Stephen Andersen (EPA official) - who played a significant role in the fight to stop the depletion of the ozone layer.

How did this happen? Just a few decades ago, the world had risen to the cataclysmic risks of ozone depletion caused by the unabated release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere. CFC, as we know, is the chief ingredient of emissions from air-conditioners (ACs), fire suppression systems, refrigerators, aerosols, spray can propellants etc.

But since then, a lot has changed and the wreckage caused to the ozone layer has been restored to a great extent. How did we script arguably humanity's greatest success story in environmental preservation?

How it Started

About 50 years ago, two chemists - Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina (1995 Nobel Prize recipients in Chemistry) - discovered that CFCs could rise and travel miles over the planet to reach the stratosphere where, upon contact with the Sun's rays, they triggered a destruction in the ozone molecules. Molecules which were responsible for preventing UV radiation from reaching the earth's surface. 

Without the ozone layer, millions of people would have been condemned to different forms of skin cancer, blindness and other immune diseases. 

This caused an alarm across the world. In the years that followed, word of the ozone "hole" leaked through the media. Fears were expressed for the well-being of scientists who had been working in the South Pole and were likely to be exposed to the UV rays. Rumors of "blind sheep" in the Antarctic stoked public fears further. One environmentalist described it as "AIDS from the sky". 

And it wasn't just one hole over the Antarctic. There was another "mini-hole" discovered over Tibet in 2003. In fact, scientists later confirmed that the layer over the entire Antarctic continent had thinned considerably. 

One thing to note here is that the ozone hole is neither fixed in size nor is it permanent. It changes seasonally as well as annually based on the change in temperature, air flow and other conditions. During Spring, as the weather heats up and CFC reactions intensify, the hole enlarges and similarly cools during the winter. 

For instance, in 2019, the ozone hole was the smallest on record, thanks to a phenomenon called the Southern Hemisphere vortex. In 2020, however, it grew rapidly from mid-August and peaked at 24.8 million square kms, making it the longest-lasting and deepest holes since the layer began to be monitored around 40 years ago. 



How It Was Contained

Fueled in part by these fears and sensational revelations, leaders from 24 nations came together to sign the Montreal Protocol in 1987. Ultimately, 197 countries ended up signing the treaty making it the only UN Treaty in history to achieve universal ratification. 

The objective was simple: limit the use of CFCs by phasing them out gradually.

The consensus that was achieved on this objective on a planetary scale was truly astonishing. Consumers started dropping spray cans and started using pumps and roll-ons for deodorants. Watershed regulations (like the Clean Air Act in USA) were framed to ensure that all CFC and Hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants and coolants are recovered, recycled and reclaimed during servicing and repairs. Production of CFCs and HCFCs are being phased out as well at a quicker-than-expected pace. 

India, having already phased out CFCs and halon (ozone-depleting compound), is now committed to phasing out HCFCs by 2030. 


How It's Going

Since the ban on the ozone-wrecking compounds went into effect, the layer has shown promising signs of recovery. But it is still a slow process and it will take until 2060-70 until the compounds are phased out completely. 

The Antarctic ozone hole is still very large and deep (almost the size of the continental US) and the 2020 hole is now among the 25% largest in recorded history. In addition, new studies have shown that the world's oceans, oversaturated with gases including ozone-depleting CFCs, will soon start emitting them (by the year 2075)!

While that may be a dangerous prospect, many studies have already begun focusing on effective methods to combat it. Meanwhile, the overall recovery process of the ozone layer continues. 


In any case, one effect of the ozone crisis control has been the belief that if climate decisions were made in a timely and consensual fashion, radical results could be achieved rather quickly. The Montreal Protocol has emerged as a signature environmental success story. It's estimated that without it, the hole would have grown by 40% by 2013. Instead, it is now expected to heal by 2050. 

But the one downside to the achievement of an environmental success story is that it could make the public more complacent about other atmospheric emergencies, like the rising greenhouse emissions and climate change. 

FYI: Here's the link to the video game launched by the UN that has become popular due to the way it portrays and explains the importance of the ozone layer crisis to children. 

This may be also because while damages caused from UV rays (like cancer) are chilling and profound to trigger concern in humans, the gradual and detrimental changes that come with CO2 emissions are harder to quantify. 

And then there is uneven policy terrain created by the politicisation of climate change that hinders consensus and activism on the issue by mobilising masses into beliefs like global warming is a conspiracy theory. Cases in point - the shambolic approach to net zero emission targets, carbon offsets and the Paris Agreement

Agreed, that the Montreal Protocol is very different from the Paris Agreement. It had only a limited number of chemicals to deal with which was easier compared to the sweeping pollution targets that the Paris Agreement seeks to achieve. But global consensus lay at the core of the Protocol's success. 

Contrary to that, today we find factions among world leaders with a splintered resolve to climate commitment, especially countries like China which despite being the biggest emitter of CO2 declined to attend the COP26 summit scheduled in Glasgow this weekend. 

Nevertheless, the CFCs were extremely powerful heat-absorbing pollutants and phasing them out has slowed climate change by a decade. This shows that the climate crisis is decidedly avertable and has been averted by the same generations that are attempting to cope with bigger climate crises now. We can save the climate just like we saved the ozone layer. 


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